The multicultural library – quo vadis?

Is there any library, for example, which concerns itself with the history and culture of the gypsies?
What is the meaning of multiculturalism when applied to libraries, particularly to public and school libraries? This was the subject discussed by about 50 persons attending a one-day conference held at the Oslo College for Higher Education in May 2003. The conference was arranged by the Faculty of Journalism, Library and Information Science in co-operation with the Multicultural Library at the Deichman Library (Oslo’s main public library).

Multiculturalism embraces not only new immigrant groups and asylum seekers but also the indigenous Sami population and other minorities. This field receives high priority at the Oslo College, where two centres have been established; one for improved skills in multicultural schools (SEFI) and one for multicultural and international initiatives (SEFIA). Considerable attention is also devoted to multicultural aspects within the respective courses of study at the College, such as library and information. Among the lecturers speaking at the Nordic one-day conference were representatives from the Danish Central Library for Immigrant Literature in Copenhagen and from the international department of the Stockholm Municipal Library. Norwegian contributions included a lecture by Einar Niemi, professor at the University of Tromsø, who looked back on the history of the indigenous Sami people and the Finnish community in northern Norway in relation to libraries and access to knowledge. Other speakers dealt with the situation in schools and Elin Hermansen, head of department at the Holmlia branch of the Deichman Library, described the library’s anti-racist work among young people in the local community.

The 3-year course of study in librarianship is sadly lacking in library-specific material in Norwegian dealing with multicultural problems (see also Per Rekdal’s article). The conference lectures, supplemented by individual student essays, will therefore be gathered together in an introductory book edited by R. Vaagan and intended for use mainly in the 3-year Bachelor course of study. I am very glad to report that the Oslo municipal authorities have shown great interest in this book project in connection with a scheme entitled The cultural schoolbag. This national initiative by the Ministry of Cultural and Church Affairs in cooperation with the Ministry of Education and Research is aimed at creating conditions to help school pupils become familiar with and acquire a positive attitude towards artistic and cultural expressions of all kinds.

In 2005 the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) will be holding its annual congress in Oslo. As many as 4,000 delegates are expected to participate. Preparations for this huge multicultural gathering of professional librarians from all parts of the world have been underway for some considerable time. The ethical values of IFLA are based on Article 19 of the Declaration of Human Rights, giving priority to free and equal information for all, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, functional ability, geographical affiliation, gender, language, race, politics or religion. Not surprisingly, IFLA has its own special section for library services aimed at ‘multicultural populations’, defined as ethnic, linguistic and cultural minorities.

An ambitious, basic principle for these services is that of equal access to both physical and digital library material and information in the user’s own language and relative to the user’s own culture. In Norway the Deichman Library’s Multicultural Library in particular has done a great deal towards achieving these aims.

However, few libraries – if indeed any – have the resources to live up fully to IFLA’s ambitious principles and multiculturalism would appear to be under pressure, even in the Nordic countries. The situation may vary according to the country and type of library concerned, but if for example one looks at what the national libraries of the 15 countries of the European Union have to say in their ‘mission statements’ with regard to cultural diversity and multiculturalism, one finds little more than reference to their own national cultural heritage. The Spanish national library makes little reference to the Basque population, while the German national library completely ignores the question of Turkish immigrants. Is there any library, for example, which concerns itself with the history and culture of the gypsies? In the cultural diversity that is Paris, there are several special libraries and research libraries with a wealth of multicultural material. At the grass-roots level, however, as I observed for myself during a stay there in the summer of 2002, among the 60 public libraries throughout the city there are only two branch libraries offering any form of non-French specialisation. Many minority organisations are fearful of assimilation within the integration project known as the European Union.

On the basis of impressions gained from a number of public libraries in France and Germany and to some degree also in Sweden and Denmark, it would appear that multiculturalism within the EU is looked upon as a costly and divisive process, while what we might describe as ‘citizenship-building’ is regarded as cheaper and more unifying. This trend seems to be gradually discernible also among public and school libraries in the Scandinavian countries, where up to now a great deal of work has been done for the indigenous Sami population, other national minorities, immigrants and asylum seekers. Sweden even has its own minister for integration and Denmark its immigration minister. With regard to immigrants and asylum seekers Denmark has initiated a 2-year trial project among four library networks with four appointed coordinators for ethnic minority users. The idea in Denmark is

  1. to strengthen the position of libraries in the sensitive area between cultural diversity and the process of integration,
  2. to develop a model for library services for ethnic minorities,
  3. to create and heighten motivation and interest in this field within libraries and library management and
  4. to experiment with new forms of co-operation between library networks.

Danish experience will also be relevant for Norway, where the Deichman Multicultural Library suffers from an acute lack of funding. The first nation-wide survey of professional values among Norwegian librarians was carried out in the spring of this year (Vaagan, Holm 2003). The survey has certain methodological limitations, but all counties and types of libraries are represented. Results showed that multicultural library services generally receive low priority compared to other professional values, although achieving somewhat higher priority among public library staff than among those working in special libraries and research libraries. Among the 372 librarians who participated, the three values placed at the top of the list were “Free access to material and information”, “Contributing to a wider spread of knowledge” and “Contributing to improved information literacy”. The three values assigned the lowest priority were “Creating quality bibliographical material”, “Protecting user confidentiality” and “Respecting copyright”. “Encouraging cultural diversity” was placed just above the three lowest choices. These results cannot be interpreted too literally, but the general picture is that multicultural library services are given low priority in the professional code.

It is therefore a welcome development that the Faculty of Journalism, Library and Information Science and the Deichman Library have agreed to cooperate on a research programme in connection with the Deichman Library’s move to new premises. The Faculty has initiated several projects to examine possible roles for public libraries as centres of information, knowledge, culture and social activities. Professor Ragnar Audunson will be leader of the mai
n project, while a separate partproject, “The new Deichman – multicultural arenas”, will be led by Robert Vaagan.

Translated by Eric Deverill

associate professor Oslo University College